Medicaid health plans are the Ginger Rogers of managed care. They have to do everything commercial and Medicare health plans do but have to do it backwards and in high heels. Despite dealing with more complex requirements and the toughest, most vulnerable patient populations, Medicaid health plans often provide higher quality and better access to care than their commercial counterparts.

To reward the highest performing health plans, state Medicaid agencies are increasingly using a new tool – performance-based auto-assignment. Auto-assignment is when new Medicaid beneficiaries are automatically assigned to a health plan when they don’t voluntarily select a plan within the required time frame. While a state may simply assign new patients randomly among available plans, it may also use auto-assignment to incentivize the best health plans with increased enrollment. The better the perform, the greater the plan’s proportion of auto-assigned enrollees.

Michael Bailit, CEO of Bailit Health Purchasing LLC and a leading expert on Medicaid and employer managed care, says for auto-assignment to work as an incentive additional assignment volume must be desired by the health plans. States must also:

– Establish clear goals at the outset and involve stakeholders early in the process.

– Focus on data that is reliable and measures that can be audited.

– Revisit measures on a regular basis and view the algorithm as something that is modifiable.

– View auto-assignment as an incentive strategy that can be use in complimentary fashion with other incentive strategies.

With the help of Bailit Health Purchasing, California Medicaid (MediCal) is developing a performance-based auto-assignment program. Starting in 2005, MediCal will use the approach to reward health plans with superior performance (relative to other health plans in the county), create a quality improvement incentive for all plans, and support the preservation of the safety net. Medicaid programs in Michigan and New York state already have experience using auto-assignment to drive quality improvement.

When the new Medicare prescription drug benefit begins in January 2006, 7 million dual eligibles (persons enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid) will receive their drug benefits through prescription drug plans (PDPs). If they don’t select a PDP, Medicare will auto-assign them into a plan. Given the positive experience of state Medicaid programs, Medicare may wish to consider using performance-based auto-assignment to help drive drug plan quality.